What Caused the Holodomor?

Three weeks ago, Grover Furr charged me with spreading fascist propaganda on CounterPunch because my film review of “Bitter Harvest” held Josef Stalin accountable for the famine in Ukraine in 1932-1933. Like the Australian theology professor Roland Boer who blogs at “Stalin’s Moustache”, Furr’s political life revolves around celebrating Stalin’s greatest achievements—such as they were. I advise my readers, especially younger ones, to visit “Stalin’s Moustache” and Furr’s website to get a handle on a school of thought that has largely died a natural death.

Instead of answering Furr’s attack, I will turn my attention to the historiography of Mark Tauger who he describes in a prefatory note as being a “world authority” on the famine. Since Tauger blames a severe drought for the deaths of between 2.5 to 7 million Ukrainians, it is understandable why he would be hoisted on the shoulders of both Grover Furr and Roger Annis, a Canadian leftist and occasional CounterPunch contributor who endorsed Tauger on his “New Cold War: Ukraine and Beyond” website as “One of the world’s leading scholars on the development of agriculture in the Soviet Union”. So, you get the picture. If you are in the business of representing Ukraine as a victim of Stalinist or Putinist colonial brutality, Tauger is essential for turning that victim into a criminal.

Around the time Furr wrote his article, I had already begun reading scholarly literature on the Holodomor including everything that Tauger had written on the topic. Despite his reputation as a leading authority on the famine, he has never written a book about it. At one time, he had an archive of his articles on the U. of West Virginia but they seemed to have mysteriously disappeared. One hopes that a Pravy Sektor hacker was not responsible.

Fortunately, my privileges as a Columbia University retiree has enabled me to read Tauger’s articles, including one titled “Natural Disaster and Human Actions in the Soviet Famine of 1931-1933” that can be accessed at the University of Pittsburgh Carl Beck Papers in Russian and Eastern European Studies.

I was surprised, but not overly so, to discover Tauger applying the same methodology to other famines in that article. If you are one of those leftists who blames British colonialism for the Potato Famine in Ireland, he will disabuse you of such foolish notions:

Consequently an understanding of the Soviet famine, and of the intense conflict between regime and peasants over grain procurements emphasized in most studies, requires an examination of the causes of those small harvests. Two examples from the vast historiography of famines demonstrates the legitimacy and importance of such an investigation. In the case of the Great Irish Famine of 1845-1851, a nationalist literature, similar to the Ukrainian nationalist literature on the Soviet famine, holds the British government responsible.

The British government responsible? No, we can’t have that. Nor was the British government responsible for the 1943 famine in Bengal, according to Tauger’s “The Indian Famine Crises of WWII”:

This “man-made” famine argument, however, rests on uncritical acceptance of one set of unreliable statistical data that Sen and others have incorrectly described as “production data.” As will be shown below, scholars who presented this view of the famine had clear evidence that discredited these data, but they did not acknowledge this conflicting evidence, let alone address its implications. As a result their discussions of the rice harvests in Bengal before the famine have misrepresented both the data and the causes of the famine. These scholars also claim that Bengal had no shortage of rice during the famine, yet they minimize or ignore environmental conditions that did in fact cause serious shortages. Much more reliable harvest data from rice research centers in Bengal during the famine show that Bengal had a major harvest failure in 1942 and a significant shortage of rice.

Of course, it is easy for some on the left to recoil at the idea that it was natural causes such as drought or blight rather than British colonialism that was responsible for the deaths of millions of Irish and Indians. Yet, when it comes to Ukraine, we are used to thinking the worst. If Victoria Nuland was on the phone with nationalist politicians prior to Euromaidan, it seems reasonable that Stalin was forced to unleash a brutal repression in the early 30s to prevent Hitler from invading Russia—or something like that.

Lenin had no problems making the connection between the colonial status of Ireland and Ukraine as indicated in a 1918 Open Letter to Boris Souvarine, a French Communist who had trouble distinguishing between oppressor and oppressed nations:

Socialists always side with the oppressed and, consequently, cannot be opposed to wars whose purpose is democratic or socialist struggle against oppression. It would therefore be absurd to deny the legitimacy of the wars of 1793, of France’s wars against the reactionary European monarchies, or of the Garibaldi wars, etc…. And it would be just as absurd not to recognise the legitimacy of wars of oppressed nations against their oppressors, wars that might break out today—rebellion of the Irish against England, for instance, rebellion of Morocco against France, or the Ukraine against Russia, etc….

Just about a year after Lenin wrote this letter, the Bolsheviks seized power and created the USSR. For the Ukrainians, this held out great promise since they carried out measures that could finally bring an end to the colonial oppression that had existed since the time of Catherine the Great. To start with, Ukraine—like all the other socialist republics—would have the right to secede. Just as importantly, the landed gentry would be expropriated and the land turned over to the peasants. Keeping in mind that that the demand for “Peace, Bread and Land” sparked the Bolshevik revolution, the third plank meant more to the Ukrainian than most Russians since national oppression and serfdom were intertwined under Czarism. The native Ukrainian tended to be a peasant whose language rights and culture were routinely violated. Communism marked a new day.

In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, Russia was plunged into a bloody civil war and forced to adopt “War Communism” that weighed more heavily on the peasant than other sectors of the population. Grain was impounded to feed the Red Army and the workers in the armaments industry who were needed to keep the counter-revolutionary invasion at bay. No matter how painful the Spartan regime, the peasant at least had title to his land.

After the war ended, Lenin persuaded the Communists to adopt the New Economic Policy that would allow private enterprise under strict controls to help revive the economy. In some ways, it was a forerunner to the model now adopted by the Cubans. Neither the Cuban nor the Russian revolutionary leaders were happy about tourist hotels and wealthy farmers (kulaks) gaining a foothold but their choices were limited.

Written 7 months before his death, Lenin’s article “On Cooperation” promoted the idea that peasant cooperatives were the most important way to carry the revolution forward. An alliance between the working class and small peasants organized in cooperatives was “all that is necessary to build a complete socialist society”. Especially because from the standpoint of transition to the new system, they were “the simplest, easiest and most acceptable to the peasant” (emphasis in the original). If anything, I would have had acceptable to the peasant in both italics and bold, had I been Lenin at the time.

When Lenin wrote this article, the Communist Party was dividing into two factions. The majority was co-led by Bukharin and Stalin who thought that the peasants should be given free rein. Bukharin, who was the architect of their program, wrote: “Overall, we need to say to the entire peasantry, to all its different strata: enrich yourselves, accumulate, develop your farms. Only idiots can say that the poor must always be with us. We must now implement a policy which will result in the disappearance of poverty.”

Trotsky formed a opposition on the basis that the Soviet Union needed to industrialize as rapidly as possible, which meant strengthening the hand of wage labor on the farms and the encouragement of collective farming. The 1927 Platform of the Joint Opposition urged that “The growth of land-renting must be offset by a more rapid development of collective farming.” Furthermore, despite the use of the term collective farming, it was clear that Trotsky and his comrades were simply endorsing the measures found in Lenin’s “On Cooperation”:

The task of socialist construction in the country is to reform agriculture on the basis of large-scale, mechanized, collective agriculture. For the bulk of the peasants the simplest road to this end is co-operation, as Lenin described it in his work On Co-operation. This is the enormous advantage which the proletarian dictatorship and the Soviet system as a whole gives to the peasant.

In other words, despite the slander directed against Trotsky as someone who “underestimated the peasantry”, there is little doubt that he was simply arguing in favor of policies proposed by Lenin, who Stalin tended to regard as the final word on everything (no matter that Lenin called for his removal from party leadership from his death-bed.)

Largely because of his bureaucratic control and the rapid influx of self-seeking elements into the party, Stalin could crush the opposition and allow the growth of an agrarian bourgeoisie that towards the end of the 20s began to assert its class power. Lurching leftward, Stalin moved against the peasantry in a manner that confused some of Trotsky’s supporters. Wasn’t Stalin adopting the program of the Left Opposition?

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Stalin’s forced march did not discriminate between rich and poor peasants. In the name of “liquidating the kulaks”, every peasant in the USSR was herded into state farms or collective farms, called sovkhozes and kolkhozes respectively. The state farms were conceived strictly as agrarian factories based on wage labor while the collective farms were collective in name only. The peasants forced to work on them were not even entitled to sell crops from their own private gardens in the marketplaces and were paid a wage tied to their output and, even more against the spirit of Lenin’s “acceptable to the peasant”, were chained to the kolkhoz that became a virtual concentration camp.

For the most exhaustive treatment of why they failed, you can read R.W. Davies and Stephen G. Wheatcroft’s 582-page “The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture 1931-1933” that considers Stalin’s policy throughout Russia. Despite not being focused on the Ukraine, it is the most authoritative account of why the famine took place there. Rejecting Tauger’s “the drought did it” argument specifically, they blame Stalin’s feckless and brutal forced collectivization for the death of millions, both Ukrainians and elsewhere.

Much of Davies and Wheatcroft is highly technical and overloaded with statistics but is worth consulting for the weight of the evidence. All of it leads to a conclusion that could not be further from Tauger’s monocausal explanation:

Collectivisation, coupled with dekulakisation, brought agriculture under state control. But its introduction brought with it enormous difficulties. These were partly inherent in the huge operation of moving 25 million individual peasant economies into a quarter of a million socialised collective farms. The difficulties were made worse by the inability of most communists, from Stalin to the party members sent into the countryside, to understand agriculture and the peasants, and offer sensible means of coping with the transformation of the countryside. In 1930, collectivisation proceeded at a breakneck pace, and impracticable schemes were enforced for the wholesale socialisation of livestock as well as grain. Even with a good harvest, the collective farmers were not guaranteed a minimum return for their work. Although some of the Utopian policies of 1930 were soon abandoned, in both 1931 and 1932 Stalin and the Politburo overestimated the harvest and imposed collection plans based on their misjudgment. Most agricultural difficulties were not attributed to mistakes in policy, or even treated as a necessary cost of industrialisation. Instead, the machinations of kulaks and other enemies of the regime were blamed for the troubles, and the solution was sought in a firmer organisation of agriculture by the state and its agencies.

Wheatcroft and Davies also dispense with Tauger in their work. It seems that one Sigizmund Mironin, who they describe as a “doughty supporter of the Stalinist regime” wrote a book on the famine inspired by Tauger. Mironin wrote: “Using the articles of M. Tauger … I seek to prove: that Stalin and the Politburo, as a result of the drought in 1931, did not have grain stocks, but did everything they could to reduce human losses from the famine, and took every measure to prevent famine from recurring.” Wheatcroft and Davies sum up Mironin’s work and implicitly what Furr and Annis have written in Stalin’s defense:

This view of the famine is emphatically and justifiably rejected by most Russian historians. We show in the following pages that there were two bad harvests in 1931 and 1932, largely but not wholly a result of natural conditions. But the 1932 harvest was not as bad as Mark Tauger has concluded. Stalin was certainly fully informed about the scale of the famine. Moreover, Mironin’s account neglects the obvious fact that the famine was also to a considerable extent a result of the previous actions of Stalin and the Soviet leadership. Mironin’s book is Stalinist apologetics, not history. Unfortunately this approach to the Stalin era is increasingly publicised in contemporary Russia.

Now at this point inquiring minds might ask who Wheatcroft and Davies are. Couldn’t they be in cahoots with Victorian Nuland and the Pravy Sektor? Even if they blame Stalin for policies that constitute manslaughter in the first degree rather than premeditated murder, doesn’t that align them with Nazi propaganda and Louis Proyect’s film reviews?

As it happens, R.W. Davies, who is now 92 years old, was an occasional contributor to New Left Review when CounterPunch editor Alexander Cockburn was on the prestigious journal’s editorial board alongside Tariq Ali.

Among the more notable contributions Davies made to the journal was a debate with Robert Conquest, whose book on the Holodomor is considered the purest expression of anti-Soviet hatred by people like Furr. In 1995, Davies wrote an article titled “Forced Labour Under Stalin: The Archive Revelations” that Conquest took exception to because it accepted “figures given to the Khrushchevite leadership by a KGB which was still falsifying—for example—death rates and causes in rehabilitation cases.” Davies defended his findings in a subsequent article that still did not mollify Conquest who complained to NLR in one more article.

This article is a bit longer than I hoped it would be but it is difficult to cover such a complex topic in less than five pages. I strongly recommend that CounterPunch readers read Tauger’s article referred to above, as well as have a look at the Wheatcroft/Davies book that is online.

Finally, to reiterate the point I made in my film review. I do not think that Stalin carried out a systematic genocide that had any similarities to what one-time CounterPunch contributor Arno Mayer called “the Judeocide”. Stalin’s policies were not that much different than those carried out in the primitive accumulation phase of capitalism that Marx, quoting British historian William Howitt, described as “one of the most extraordinary relations of treachery, bribery, massacre, and meanness”. That all this was carried out in the name of communism makes little difference, especially since the alienation it created led in part to its downfall—whatever it was.

Louis Proyect blogged at https://louisproyect.wordpress.com and was the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviewed films for CounterPunch.